When you capture a person or group of people, you’re capturing the story and beauty of those people. These images are portraits or portraiture. However, portrait photography goes beyond snapping images of a person.
Portrait photography can be artistic and beautiful. Depending on the photographer’s style and skills, portraits can take different forms. In fact, they capture more than just the emotion of the person in the image, but also the story as well.
In this guide, we’re going to explore everything you need to know about building a portrait photography portfolio. Whether you’re a novice in photography or an experienced photographer looking to expand your online portfolio, this guide will help you get started.
Table of Contents
First, let’s take a look at what exactly is portrait photography. Portrait photography is a type of photography that aims to capture a subject, typically a person or group of people. Portraits are typically commissioned (e.g. for weddings, graduations, commercial purposes), but can also be a method to shoot for fine art photography, representative, or photojournalism, among other genres. Portraits can tell a story and capture the subject’s personality through the lens of a photographer. The photographer uses a variety of different techniques, including lighting, composition, styling, backdrops, and poses.
Type and subject are often what create the spectrum that is portrait photography. Some of these include family, maternity or newborn, fashion, pet, professional (e.g. musician, sports group, politician), candid or street portraits, self-portraiture, glamour and boudoir, conceptual or surreal portraits, and headshot photography. There are so many styles of portraiture you can get into, and this type of photography will not box you in. It might even make you some money!
In general, there are 11 types of portrait photography:
Depending on your style, there are various types of portrait photography that you can try to build up a portrait photography portfolio.
Finding inspiration from other portrait photographers may be a great way to help get you started in this niche. In fact, learning about the famous portrait photographers might help ground you in best practice, and inspire you in the development of your own style. Here are a few famous portrait photographers that are known for their work in capturing people in their own unique ways:
Robert Mapplethorpe was famous for his fine art portrait photography. His approach to still life and black and white portraiture was groundbreaking, to say the least.
Diane Arbus also made compelling black and white photography portraits, portraying subjects often on the margins of society.
Annie Leibovitz, arguably America's most famous portrait photographer, is known for her portraiture of celebrities, depicting them in settings from intimate to sprawling.
Cindy Sherman, a fine art photographer specializing in self-portraiture, whose work leans on theatrics and elements of surrealism.
Apart from famous portrait photographers from history, there are many other great portrait photographers you can check out. You can gain inspiration and creative ideas from current working artists and portrait photographers, which might even help you when you go to make a website.
Awesome! This is an exciting genre to get into, and compared to other types of photography, may earn you a more regular income. There are plenty of considerations when getting into portrait photography, from gear and developing your style and portfolio, to showcasing and selling your work. Let's start with what kind of equipment you need to consider.
Assembling your gear can feel overwhelming and expensive, but we hope to lighten the load with a summary of what cameras and lenses to look for when you're shooting photography portraits, as well as comprehensive options to fit a range of budgets. You could simply pick up your smartphone to start taking portraits or consider investing in a DSLR camera.
Feeling the financial pinch? Many local camera stores have pre-owned options and staff are knowledgeable and there to help you chose bodies and lenses to suit your needs. Facebook marketplace or local camera groups, Kijiji, eBay, and Craigslist are also great places to start looking for used gear.
Whether you're looking into entry-level DSLRs or a top-tier camera with great full-frame sensors for shooting portraits, you're loyal to a certain camera brand, or you have a few lenses you'd like to fit onto a new mirrorless camera, there are a number of great cameras that you can choose from to suit your needs. From Nikon to Canon, check out our comprehensive guide for the best cameras for portraits.
The lens you shoot on is key to taking great portrait photographs, second to your own eye and skill of course! Considering your lens purchase will need to happen either in tandem with your camera purchase or within the confines of the camera you already have.
When shopping for a lens, you'll need to consider your camera's body and sensor size— this affects the focal length of your lens. 50mm and 85mm lenses are pretty standard focal lengths for portrait photography. A 50mm lens will include more of your background and an 85mm will hone in on your subject more. You could find a zoom lens to give you range, accommodating both focal lengths, or you could find a prime lens, which would give you a fixed focal length, typically be lighter and faster to use, but more expensive and you may want to carry several for options. Prime lenses are typically the choice of professional portrait photographers for their sharper and better overall image quality.
Lots to consider, so here is our list of best lenses for portrait photography to help you out more.
If you're checking out sites previously mentioned finding used lenses, a word to the wise: exercise caution when inspecting second-hand lenses, look for possible fungus and glass separation, as this will render your lens useless.
Tripod: If you don't already have a tripod, getting one can help with things like shooting with long exposures as well as ease of use when setting up your composition or directing your subject.
Backdrops: You have so many options when it comes to backdrops, from material type (we love muslin), to size (consider your studio size and subjects) and pattern.
Lights: Proper lighting (studio lighting or natural light) is central to portrait photography. Things like on and off-camera flashes, light reflectors, and continuous lighting are all ways to control your environment and dictate your shoots. Don't get too overwhelmed with lighting equipment though, simple one-light portrait lighting can have incredible effects.
Filters: Filters can of course complicate your shooting and in some cases degrade image quality, but when you buy and use the right one, filters serve to benefit your process and output. They can help minimize glare and reflection, control light, protect your lens from damage, even enhance color.
What defines you as a portrait photographer will likely make the difference in getting work, versus your competition. While there are of course universals to consider in portrait photography, like capturing your subject's eyes, personality, lighting setup technique, compositions, etc., what you do within these areas can set you apart as a portrait photographer. As well, soft skills like the connection with your subject and good communication skills will help grow your business through recommendations and referrals.
Here are a few approaches and common considerations in portrait photography worth your time:
How you illuminate your subjects can completely change the look and feel of your photos. Familiarizing yourself with lighting techniques, from lighting setups to effects, will give you more options to support your vision and give your clients options.
Will your subject be in stark focus with a blurred background? Maybe you'll take a different approach, illuminating more of your background or softening your subject. Use your lenses to play with how focus changes the feel of your photographs.
Capturing your subject by understanding and utilizing angles is another way to dramatically up your game. Consider both your subject's angles and your camera’s angles when shooting.
Proper planning and adequate time shooting will really aid your process. Not only does it help you prepare, but it also helps your subject seeing you at ease when you don't rush your shot. Plus, with the time and planning you put into a shoot, the more confident you feel, and that totally comes off to your subject too!
Being at ease or having a connection really helps your subject relax, which in turn will allow their personality to come alive for you to capture it. Be yourself, but also let your subject know anything necessary about you before you begin, e.g. "Hey, I'm pretty quiet while I'm shooting. Let me know if you need anything." Or, "Let me know if there's anything that would make you more comfortable while we're shooting."
This might be your subject, it might now. But either way, making sure your client expectations are clear is important. Be on the same page about outcomes, as for clarification if you need it, and be ready to work with criticism.
It depends. Considerations on the road to developing your own style and techniques (self-guided training!) include things you've likely been considering already, like researching famous portrait photographers and various techniques. Other ways to get more training, including photography tips and tricks, can be through non-traditional paths like through how-to videos, online or in-person lectures, workshops, conversations among peers and so much more.
Luckily, there are lots of great free online courses and photography workshops that are available to learn more about portrait photography. There are also a number of YouTube tutorials available for free. Although a degree isn’t necessary, if you’re looking to explore art schools for degree-level training, you can consider looking into post-secondary institutes.
After you've decided on a direction, sought inspiration, even taken a few photos, tried a few different lighting setups, there are a few more widely considered approaches to portrait photography.
Approaches in portrait photography you might want to explore further:
Constructionist: this approach really centers your subject. Having the subject literally construct the portrait. This is usually most seen in portrait studio work and some social photography.
Environmental: This approach considers the environment surrounding the subject, this is commonly a place known to the subject, e.g. where the subject lives or works.
Candid: This approach is common in street photography, it emotes a relaxed and much less staged air that an approach like constructionist has. This approach is far from a trend, some of the world's most iconic portraits are candid, and a lot of photographers see really good results when working within this confine.
Creative: Creative approaches in portraiture exemplify experimentation and artistry. Sometimes this can involve quite a bit of post-processing to make artistic changes to the image.
Building your portrait photography business could be time-consuming, but it’s all about practice and experimenting. Now that you have gear, some inspiration, and techniques to consider, it's time to create!
If you're still in the experimentation phase, using a person might feel intimidating, or you may not have access to one. Using everyday objects, pets, or a mannequin head can help you perfect lighting and practice getting better using your gear without having to worry about time constraints. Be sure to jot down camera settings and lighting positions in a journal or in your phone so you can go back to them in the future and chart your progress, or remember settings you want to iterate on or use again.
As a starting point, ask family and close friends if they'll be your test subjects, or ask peers to sit for you in exchange for headshots. These folks might also provide you valuable feedback for ways to improve your work or highlight areas you are shining in that you should keep nurturing.
Depending on your preference, some photographers may choose to price portrait photography based on the number of shots or hours. Some photographers may choose to create portrait photography packages with a limited number of images and hours for the shoot. Make sure to consider external factors when calculating your cost.
Consider any expenses you incurred in creating your photograph. This list light be longer than you think! If you're using a film camera, you have to factor in film and developing costs. (e.g. film and development, printing costs, digital storage) and how much time you spent producing and editing it. This should give you a good baseline for how much you might consider charging. Check out our comprehensive guide to pricing your photography, which includes a cost-plus pricing calculation. If you're new to the game, this overview of how much magazines and other publications pay for photos may be super helpful.
In addition, looking around to see what contemporaries are charging can be beneficial to better understand your market and pricing your pieces to sell. This might be your best bet at first, if you're new to the game and haven't got a list of clients yet.
If you're asking this question, you've probably already shared your practice and even taken photos of your family and friends, reached out to your personal networks. At this point, you should have your portrait photography portfolio and website filled with content. Things like SEO optimization, making more connections in your local photography community, even advertising on Google and through Facebook and Instagram, will get you more and more exposure. Just make sure you have a solid portfolio when your website traffic starts to filter in.
The ways you present your photography online is an important step in your process, and crucial in drumming up a new business and a great way for new clients to find you. From selecting a website builder best suited to display your work to uploading, editing, optimizing, and maintaining your site, displaying your photography online is a crucial part of your process. Most importantly, getting more and more work!
Just starting out? First, get inspiration and explore site templates from some of the best photography portfolios. From there, start your free 14-day trial and get building your own portrait portfolio, where you can integrate your social media, create an online store, and display your work how you see fit— with the guidance you need. We even created this easy to follow step-by-step guide to build a portrait photography portfolio set to wow clients.
That's it! Whether you're just dabbling or taking on a hobby, or looking to make a career move, we hope to have imparted some portrait photography tips and tricks.